Timberlake Wertenbaker is a New York born, British writer raised in France. A daughter or a writer and a journalist, Wertenbaker’s interest in writing and language is no surprise and having started her career lecturing in Greek and French, Wertenbaker moved to London in the early 1980s where he career in theatre developed. In 1984 she became the resident writer for the Royal Court and this relationship culminated in the development of Our Country’s Good, an adaption the Thomas Keneally novel The Playmaker.
The play was developed by Wertenbaker in conjunction with the Royal Court Theatre in 1988 a time of significant cuts to public spending in Britain under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The play was developed in the later period of Thatcher’s Britain meaning the consequences of these fiscal cuts were evident to a broad cross-section of society. Among the public services which were disadvantaged by these fiscal measures was HM Prison Service (Her Majesty’s Prison Service), and it was the extreme conditions faced by the inmates of state-owned prisons which influenced the development of the play.
During the early developmental period of the play Wertenbaker visited HMP Wormwood Scrubs, a notorious male correctional facility located in West London. The prison had long faced criticism of failings in management which resulted in poor inmate living conditions and outbreaks of violence which were exacerbated by the continual budgetary restrictions imposed by the government. During the visit Wertenbaker saw a prisoner’s performance of ‘The Love of a Good Man’, an event which is referenced in the preface. Regarding the event she said: “it confirmed our feelings about the power and value of theatre, it [the performance] has given them a sense of self”. This event left a lasting impression on Wertenbaker and the plot of the play centers around a group of convicts performing a play to entertain the other prisoners and the guards in a penal colony in Australia.
Later, in 1989, a prisoner by the name of Joe White was moved from Wormwood Scrubs to Blundeston prison where he took part in a performance of Our Country’s Good. Wertenbaker said that the play had come “full circle”. In Our Country’s Good, Wertenbaker explores how drama and language can be a refuge from the hopelessness of the grim conditions of supposed rehabilitation facilities and comments on the ineffectiveness of the justice system in reintegrating inmates into society.
When it opened at the Royal Court, Wertenbaker was awarded an Olivier award which was shortly followed by nominations for six Tony awards on Broadway. Much of the success of the play can be attributed to its exploration of what it means to be human. Wertenbaker used the context of 18th century transportation to explore human morality in extreme circumstances. Out of this emerges horrendous cruelty, which Wertenbaker describes as the extreme lows of humanity, and remarkable survival, the extreme highs.
During the 18th century, the British government used transportation as an alternative punishment to hanging. Convicts were transported to colonies in order to serve their sentence, a solution which boasted the double benefit of removing these undesirable individuals from society as well as being cost effective. Initially penal colonies were established in America; however, the War of Independence (July 1st 1776) disrupted this practice and in 1787 the first penal colonies were established in Australia. It is estimated that around 160,000 people were sent to the Australian penal colonies and records show that children as young as nine years old were sent for even minor crimes with the standard sentence being 7 years.
The first of these groups is referred to as “The First Fleet” totaled 1,030 people, comprised of 300 soldiers and around 700 convicts. Conditions on the ships were extreme, the voyage lasted 252 days and 48 people died during this time. The incentive for the soldiers to accompany the trip as jailers was the promise of establishing a new colony in Australia where they could thrive and prosper, though in reality many of the marines felt they had been sent as punishment for losing the war in America. Records indicate that The Recruiting Officer was the first dramatic production performed in Australia. The convicts formed the cast of the play and were directed by 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark to celebrate the King’s birthday on June 4th 1789.
Our Country’s Good is a dramatic depiction of these real life events which makes use of historical records as inspiration for the characters.